Wisconsin and the Common Core math standards

I have been inexcusably out of touch with the controvery in Wisconsin about the adoption of the Common Core state standards for mathematics.  I present without comment the text of a letter that’s circulating in support of the CCSSM, which I know has the support of many UW-Madison faculty members with kids in Wisconsin public schools.  All discussion (of CCSSM in general or the points made in this letter) very welcome.

(Related:  Ed Frenkel supports CCSSM in the Wall Street Journal.)

To whom it may concern,

We the undersigned, faculty members in mathematics, science and engineering at institutions of higher education in Wisconsin, wish to state our strong support for Wisconsin’s adoption of the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics (CCSSM).  In particular, we want to emphasize the high level of mathematical rigor exemplified by these standards.  The following points seem to us to be important:

  • We know that what we have been doing in the past does not work.  Nationwide, over 40% of first-year college students require remedial coursework in either English or mathematics.[1] For many of these students, completing their remedial mathematics (that is to say, high school mathematics) requirement will be a significant challenge on their path to their chosen college degree.  The situation in Wisconsin mirrors the national one.  Over the University of Wisconsin system as a whole, 21.3% of all entering freshmen in the fall of 2009 required remedial education in mathematics.[2]  Over the Wisconsin Technical College System, the mathematics remediation figure is closer to 40%.[3]
  • The CCSSM set a high, but realistic, level of expectations for all students.  It is unrealistic, and unnecessary, to expect all students to master calculus (for example) in high school.  That would be the “one size fits all” approach that is often brought up as an argument against the Common Core.  Instead, the CCSSM attempts to identify a coherent set of mathematical topics of which it can be reasonably be said that they are essential for students’ future success in our increasingly technological and data-driven society.  “College and career ready,” yes, but also life and citizenship ready.
  • It is easy to point to a certain favorite topic and say that the Common Core delays discussion of that topic, or places it in a grade level higher than it has been taught previously.  It is also dangerous.  There is no merit in placing a topic at a grade level where students are unable to do more than repeat procedures without understanding or reasoning.  (One example would be the all-too-frequent expectation that students compute means and medians of sets of numbers, with no significant connection to context, and no discussion of when it would make sense to use one rather than the other.)  It is necessary to look at any set of standards as a coherent whole, and ask whether students who meet all expectations of the standards have been held to a sufficiently high level.
  • Any set of standards is a floor, not a ceiling.  Any local school district, school or individual teacher may set expectations beyond the standards, if they choose to do so.  There are certainly many students who will need more mathematics in high school than is required by the CCSSM: Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics (STEM)-intending students, or students who hope to attend an elite college or university, are two obvious groups.  These students should indeed take more mathematics, and opportunities should be made available for them to do so. The standards question, however, is whether all students should be required to learn more mathematics than is in the CCSSM; our answer is “no.”
  • Even for talented students, the rush to learn advanced topics and procedures should not come at the expense of students’ deeper understanding of the mathematical content being covered. Talented students also need quality guidance; they should not be rushed thoughtlessly for the sake of advancement.
  • There are undoubtedly some professional mathematicians, scientists and engineers who claim that the CCSSM are insufficiently rigorous; it is our understanding that they are a small minority.

We entreat you to keep Wisconsin in the group of States that are adopting the CCSSM.  We see the consequences of failed educational policies in our classrooms every day, and we only have the well being of our students in mind. The CCSSM is the right balance: already far higher than our previous State standards but not beyond what one can expect from a majority of students.


[1] Beyond the Rhetoric: Improving College Readiness Through Coherent State Policy, accessed from http://www.highereducation.org/reports/college_readiness/gap.shtml on October 3, 2013.

[2] Report on Remedial Education in the UW System: Demographics, Remedial Completion, Retention and Graduation, September 2009, accessed from http://www.uwsa.edu/opar/reports/remediation.pdf on October 6, 2013.

[3] Findings of the Underprepared Learners Workgroup, accessed from http://systemattic.wtcsystem.edu/system_initiatives/prepared_learners/Findings.pdf on October 6, 2013.

11 thoughts on “Wisconsin and the Common Core math standards

  1. Jon Awbrey says:

    The best way to get up to speed on this issue and others affecting Pre*K-12 education — coming soon to a college near you — is to sample Diane Ravitch’s blog from time to time, or get a copy of her new book just out, Reign of Error.

  2. Michelle says:

    This is a complicated question. I very much like most of what the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics has to say. Most mathematicians who read the “math practices” find that they resonate. Yes! This is what mathematics is really about.

    (It will take you five minutes. Go read them here: http://www.corestandards.org/Math/Practice.)

    Ravitch is not a mathematician. She is an historian of education (and a brilliant one). Her primary complaints that I’ve seen are:

    1. Common Core has not been field tested. In a sense this is true, but for the math standards, it’s not. CCSS under that name has not been field tested, but I’m not even really sure what it means to field test standards. You field test curricula, which are based (or not) on standards. But in any case, these are not a tremendous departure from what has been advocated by lots of folks (and tried, a lot) since 1989.

    2. The English standards have a huge shift in focus away from fiction and towards “informational text.” I find this horrifying, personally. These days, I read almost exclusively “informational texts,” even when I read for pleasure. But as through all of K-12, I read only fiction — lots of fiction, all the fiction I could get my hands on. I don’t think I would love to read the way I do (nor have the patience to slog through some of these “informational texts” if I hadn’t grown up reading things I love. (I also taught some struggling readers in my K-12 teacher days, and finding fiction they connect with was the only way I got them to read anything at all.)

    I’ve also heard that a lot of the suggested readings are completely grade inappropriate. In short, the English standards are much more controversial than the math standards. They’re tied together, so frankly I predict that they both go down in flames in 5-10 years. I’m not sure how I feel about that, honestly.

    (This is not to say the math standards are not controversial. But most of the complaints about them come from people with whom I pretty much fundamentally disagree about what makes good math instruction. I know and respect the people who wrote them. I’ve read them and think they are good. And I’ve talked with other mathematicians and math teachers who agree.)

    3. CCSS is intimately tied to Obama’s “Race to the Top” initiative and a huge push towards testing. This is a huge problem, IMO. I think our test-crazed culture is an unmitigated disaster. And what I’ve seen of the CCSS “assessments” (read: standardized tests by a fancier name) is not good.

    4. The funding and push for CCSS comes largely from the supremely rich who are also part of a movement to close public schools, open profitable online “academies,” fire career teachers, hire temps (Teach for America) to replace them, and somehow make money on the whole deal. (The Gates foundation is a huge player here.)

    (This part is completely mysterious to me, quite honestly. I don’t understand the connection between CCSS and the privatization movement. The tie-in is probably number 3 above, more than with the standards themselves. They want to collect tons of data on kids, use the data to identify and get rid of “bad teachers” and “failing schools,” and so on. But I still don’t really understand it.)

    Anyway, that’s my quick (ish) summary. I second the recommendation to read Ravitch’s book. It’s pretty short, well-documented, and a quick read. But do also take a minute to at least check out the CCSS link above for the Math Practices.

    As an aside, you were mentioned in Ravitch’s blog not long ago (I think because I sent her the link, but maybe it was someone else): http://dianeravitch.net/2013/08/02/how-tony-bennett-raised-the-c-to-an-a/

  3. swildstrom says:

    The couple of comments from Jon Awbrey tell us why it is so important for the mathematical community to get involved in supporting CCSS. I don’t want to take on Diane Ravitch’s weirdly oscillating views on education reform. But the Mercedes Schneider post he cites is remarkable for not containing a single substantive objection to the standards. Instead, it seems driven by ideological distaste for the idea that someone might make a profit from CCSS. By the way, the claim that Pearson Education holds the copyright on CCSS is simply wrong. From the web page Schneider links to:

    “NGA Center/CCSSO shall be acknowledged as the sole owners and developers of the Common Core State Standards, and no claims to the contrary shall be made.

    Any publication or public display shall include the following notice: “© Copyright 2010. National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and Council of Chief State School Officers. All rights reserved.”

    If you actually read the standards, it’s hard to argue with their thrust, though of course everyone will have a quibble here or there. The emphasis on basic skills in early grades is a continuation of a trend that has been going on for some time. The main principles of CCSS are greater depth and less breadth, understanding of the connectedness of major mathematical topics and concepts, and greater standardization of the ordering of subjects. None of this should be terribly controversial and is definitely the direction in which K-12 instruction should be moving.

    But CCSS is under attack from a lot of know-nothings on the right and people on the left who mainly seem horrified by any corporate involvement (and it is simply not true the CCSS is the work of corporate interests.) CCSS won;t solve the problems of math education in the U.S. but it is a significant step in the right direction. But writing the standards was the easy part; the devil is in the implementation. Mathematicians should be doing their part to help see that it is done right.

  4. I’m a high school teacher and I am fairly familiar with CCSS. I find the math standards themselves fairly innocuous, although I’m not sure they are drastically different than standards that already exist (like, say, the NCTM standards).

    But at this piont the standards are inextricably linked, through politics, to a number of questionable education “reform” policies, like high stakes testing, teacher evaluation systems, student data collection, and the like

    It seems like the standards have become the vehicle for the implementation of these other polcies. As John Ewing, president of Math for America puts it, the standards have been ‘hijacked’. So it’s not clear to me that supporting the standards, in and of themselves, is really a meaningful position.

  5. The final paragraph of the previous post from swildstrom is the key take-home message for mathematicians interested in this topic. CCSSM is already the adopted curriculum in 45 states. Arguments for or against CCSSM take the focus off the fact that teachers and curriculum directors across the country are currently working hard to implement it, often with imperfect knowledge of how best to proceed. Their efforts are taking place in a three-dimensional vacuum: on the x-axis, we have a dearth of high-quality curricular resources genuinely aligned to the content standards of the CCSSM and even more importantly engaging in a significant way with the pedagogical shifts that must take place giving full weight to the importance of the practice standards; on the y-axis, we have very minimal knowledge of what the standardized assessments that kids will start taking in 2014-2015 will look like, especially on the question of how much emphasis will be placed on testing kids on their proficiency in practice standards; and on the z-axis: the lack of a systemic, national, program for professional development of in-service teachers coordinated with reform and reinvigoration of the mathematics training of pre-service teachers.

    While hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on developing the assessments (www.parcconline.org and http://www.smarterbalanced.org), the role of higher education in preparing school districts to implement CCSSM continues to be undefined and unorganized. A growing band of mathematicians are devoting significant time and thought to the problem, but these efforts could benefit from being coordinated as part of an organized system of partnerships between mathematics and mathematics education faculty, and school teachers and administrators.

    The most drastic shift in CCSSM is the emphasis on process as well as content. In teaching literature, teachers are quite used to the importance of this mix, and when they teach students to “read between the lines” or “think about the motivation of the characters” etc., they draw on their own experience of being sophisticated readers of literature. Teachers will in general have a harder time, especially at the elementary level, knowing how to coach students in the mathematical process because they will, on the whole, have had much less experience with this themselves.

    To bring the issue to focus a little, consider the 7th Standard for Mathematical Practice: “Mathematically proficient students look for and make use of structure.” In my experience, this is the standard that’s most difficult for teachers to understand, never mind teach, model, and assess. No amount of reading descriptions of what we mean by “structure” in this context will create deep understanding of it, in my opinion. What’s needed, instead, is a set of authentic mathematical experiences that then engenders discussions of what we understand by structure, how to look for it, and how to use it. Mathematicians can play an important role by creating experiences for (current as well as future) teachers that communicate this sort of process discussion. I also think most mathematicians find this kind of meta-mathematical discussion interesting and fun. An interesting exercise is to try to add a sentence to the description in CCSSM of Standard #7 by coming up with one’s own simple-to-explain example of mathematical structure.

  6. deutsch29 says:

    Swildstrom, I argue points about a set of imposed standards that I am not allowed to change. It is the very process of CCSS creation and subsequent imposition that are problematic.

    CCSS is about as “top-down” as it gets. This directly contradicts the higher-order thinking I am supposed to be having my students engage in. CCSS dismisses professional judgment.

    If you like the standards, great. But that does not alter the fact that they were created by an elite group; are copyrighted; are being strongly promoted by the federal government (even tied to RTTT funding); do not promote the flexibility of the democratic process; and are a fantastic financial cow for curriculum, assessment, and data companies.

    For a more comprehensive view of my position on CCSS, feel free to follow the links to my other writings on CCSS.

  7. At the top of this post, my Op-Ed with Hung-Hsi Wu in support of CCSS in Math (CCSSM) is mentioned. A follow-up piece by Wu and myself, entitled “Common Core Standards in Mathematics: The Real Issues” has just been published in The Huffington Post:


    It is relevant to this discussion.

  8. quasihumanist says:

    I am quite pessimistic about the prospects for a successful implementation of the Common Core.

    Implementation of the Common Core requires a wholesale retraining of teachers. There are lots of teachers out there. Retraining all these teachers is quite expensive.

    Also, for many of the teachers out there, actually getting through such a retraining will require a good deal of work and motivation given their current knowledge. This is especially true for elementary school teachers; a fairly large portion of them (though by no means a majority) don’t even understand place value. Given that, in many rural and urban areas, schools already have a good deal of trouble finding barely qualified teachers and parents have difficulty understanding the need for an understanding of mathematics, it is hard to imagine where this motivation will come from.

    Since states don’t want to spend the money to retrain all these teachers (especially since better qualified teachers will undoubtedly turn around and demand to be paid more!) I think we are just going to get Potemkin villages. Tests will be created that will look like they test reasoning, but the tests of reasoning will be standard rote tests that don’t vary, and hence teachers will now simply learn to teach how to fake “reasoning” on the tests without actually learning actual mathematical reasoning themselves (which they need to do before being able to teach it to their students).

  9. […] Wisconsin and the Common Core math standards (quomodocumque.wordpress.com) […]

  10. I just visited the great state of Wisconsin to testify before the fourth in a series of legislative hearings about the standards. Kevin McLeod was there as well, with this petition, bearing the signatures of Jordan himself and Dick Askey, among others. Fantastic work, guys! I wrote a blog post about my experiences.

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